We have all heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a traveler is beaten and robbed. A priest and later a Levite see the man, but leave him to suffer. A Samaritan comes along, helps the man, binding his wounds, and then pays for his upkeep. Jesus told this story in response to a question of exactly who the “neighbor” is in “love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is generally defined as “everybody.”
There is also a Good Samaritan Law, which protects people from being sued whenever they try to help someone who is being harmed.
But, what is a Samaritan? Why would this story be so shocking to his audience? Are there still Samaritans today?
When I was a child, I was taught that Samaritans were just people from a certain region. However, this definition is inadequate for these interesting people.
In 609 BC, the Jewish people were first deported from their country in what would become the Babylonian Captivity. Other deportations followed for the next 20 years. When they started to return in 538 BC, they had undergone immense changes in their religion and culture.
But not all of the Jewish people were deported. Thousands remained behind, and these are the Samaritans. Their name means “Guardians of the Torah” and their essential difference with Judaism is all of the changes that were made to their holy texts while in Babylon. Also, they believe that Mount Gerizim, and not Jerusalem, is the one true sanctuary of God.
In the time of Jesus, there were over one million Samaritans living in the Empire, and they and the Judeans had an intense dislike of each other, as usually happens when one group of people formally divide. To use a Samaritan as the hero of the parable would have shown his audience that Jesus did mean for everyone to help each other, regardless of who they are.
Samaritans make other appearances in the New Testament. In Matthew (written for an exclusively Jewish audience), Jesus tells his disciples not to preach to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only the “lost sheep of Israel.” In Luke (written for a Greco-Roman audience), they receive better treatment, such as the parable above and the one lone leper who returned to praise God. In John (very different from all the others), Jesus converts some Samaritans, and in one passage is accused of being a Samaritan and having a demon. Jesus’ response is only to say “I have no demon”, and neither he nor the author address the other part. In Acts, the apostles preach in various areas to the Samaritans.
In the political upheavals that followed for centuries, the Samaritans revolted several times against their various masters. In the Muslim conquests, most of them converted to Islam.
As of January 1, 2012, there are only 571 Samaritans left in the world, half in Israel and half in the Palestinian territories. While they have Israeli citizenship and are treated by Rabbinic Judaism as a sect, the Israeli government requires formal conversions for certain activities.
As a small isolated community, the Samaritans are very interesting to the scientific community. They have a very isolated gene pool, composing only four families, and have a history of genetic diseases. They are trying to marry outside of their community, but the Israeli Ministry of the Interior refuses to recognize Jewish-Samaritan inter-marriages.
So, the next time you perform a Random Act of Kindness, think about this small group of people, living and worshiping as they have done since ancient times.